Wind Park in No Man's Land: Offshore Project Stirs Up German-Dutch Border Dispute

By Benjamin Dürr

The German energy company EWE has begun construction on an offshore wind park in the North Sea, but Germany and the Netherlands can't agree on which side of the border it is on. It is one of Europe's last undefined frontiers and it is becoming a problem for the company.

Construction has begun on the Riffgat windpark. But is it in Germany or Holland? Zoom
DPA

Construction has begun on the Riffgat windpark. But is it in Germany or Holland?

When the Riffgat offshore windfarm is finally finished, it will include 30 gigantic wind turbines jutting above the waves of the North Sea. The columns to be driven into the sea floor are fully 70 meters (230 feet) long and the first of them have already descended to the sea floor. Construction has already gotten underway.

And yet, despite the building activitiy, nobody quite knows if the project site is part of Germany or part of the Netherlands. The wind park is located some 14 kilometers (nine miles) from the German island of Borkum and 25 kilometers from the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog. Somewhere in between is the border. Where exactly it runs, however, has been a matter of some dispute.

The mouth of the Ems River is one of the last places in Europe without a clearly defined border. Germany claims it is far to the west; Holland says it lies more to the east. And German energy supplier EWE is building the Riffgat windfarm right in the heart of this contentious area -- and has been dragged into a bizarre diplomatic conflict.

It is a centuries-old disagreement, dating back to the 15th century. Only in 1960 did the two sides conclude the Ems-Dollart Treaty in which they vaguely agreed to work together "in the spirit of neighborliness." But the agreement is only valid for an area three sea miles from the coast. Between three and 12 sea miles, where international waters begin, there are no rules. But that's exactly where the wind park is supposed to be located.

"We are building on German sovereign territory," said Christian Bartsch, the spokesman for EWE. "The Federal Republic signed a lease with us and approved the construction." The state of Lower Saxony put together a land use plan, which included the offshore wind park. The Enova group bought into the project in 2000 and EWE joined in 2004 and now owns 90 percent of the Riffgat consortium.

'It All Seemed Simple'

Authorities approved the construction plans in September 2010. Uwe Rottmann, director of the commercial supervisory office in Oldenburg, near the North Sea coast, said: "In our view, Riffgat belongs to Germany, therefore we were able to issue the construction permit."

But the Dutch disagree. Officials there say that 40 percent of the windpark is in territory belonging to the Netherlands. A Dutch permit is also required, officials there say.

The company is now the one paying the price for the bizarre fight. "This is an international law issue that we are not a partner to," says EWE spokesman Christian Bartsch. There's not much the company can do, he adds.

EWE and Enova have invested around €450 million in the wind park and have held talks with potential investors. So far, though, no one has signed on. The border issue, they say, is always an element in the negotiations. As such, the companies have decided to first build the park and then sell shares once it is complete.

Economic Interests

The Riffgat wind park is expected to go online in 2013 and provide electricity for 120,000 households. For the moment, construction is roughly eight months behind schedule, with the border dispute being responsible for at least part of that delay. Simply moving it a few kilometers to the east to make sure it is in German territory, says Bartsch, is an impossibility. The permit is only valid for that exact location. The site was geologically tested and cleared of munitions stemming from World War II. The wind calculations, too, apply only to that single location.

To date there is no solution. The German Foreign Ministry does not want to comment in detail, but a spokesman said there are frequent talks between Germany and the Netherlands about the border issue. "Both sides are interested in a mutual agreement." The Foreign Ministry in The Hague and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin did not answer SPIEGEL ONLINE requests for information.

"One possibility would be a line -- not a border -- up to the 12 sea mile-zone, which would regulate mineral resources and wind parks," said Eva Hülsmann from the Federal Administration for Water and Shipping. "The border issue is about economic interests and keeping the waterways open to important ports in Emden and Eemshaven. No one wants to be dependent on the other."

Should the countries not be able to reach an agreement, the conflict could theoretically end up in the International Court of Justice. Then the decision would be made where the court is located: The Hague.

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